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Fate's Plaything

Jawad’s body, mind, and plans were all torn to pieces. The only coherent thought in his head was that he had to mend all three, in that order. Each step he took was a stab of pain on his damaged feet, but he had become accustomed to ignoring the sensation. Stubbornly, he stumbled forwards. Few noticed him except children, making him the object of their ridicule. Some of them picked up stones and pebbles to throw at him. Jawad ignored them as well, focusing only on breathing and moving his feet, one at a time. There was only one place he could think of going, and thankfully, he knew the way well enough to find it blindfolded.

“Ishak,” he pleaded hoarsely, knocking weakly on the door. “Help me.”

Whether by divine intervention or because hearing was the one sense left undamaged by his own work, Ishak heard him. “Gods,” he mumbled as he saw the husk of a man outside his door.

Jawad raised his crushed hand in front of him. “Save my hand, Ishak. I beg you, save it.”

“Come inside.” Jawad obliged and all but fell into the bed in Ishak’s workshop. Carefully, the physician took hold of Jawad’s damaged hand and gently prodded the fingers. “Jawad, this is not good.”

“That’s why I need your help.”

“When did this happen?”

“I don’t know. This morning, last night, maybe longer ago.”

“The bones are broken in many places,” Ishak explained, squinting his eyes as he examined the purple skin stretched over Jawad’s fingers. “It looks like it has begun healing, but without the bones in the proper place.”

“Can you mend it?”

Ishak swallowed. “I’ll have to break the bones apart in some places and put them together again. It will be most painful.”

“It can’t be worse than the first time. Do it.”

“Jawad, there’s no guarantee it will ever heal. In fact, I might cause such damage to make it worse.”

“It can’t be worse than it is now. Do it.”

“Jawad –”

“Ishak.” The thief opened his eyes to stare at the old man. “Please. I will pay your weight in silver. I’ll put gold in your hand. Anything.”

The alchemist gave a heavy sigh. He found a thick leather strip and gave it to Jawad. “Bite down on this.”

For the next hour, Ishak worked on each of Jawad’s left fingers. He pushed against each little part, determining the breaks. After every examination, he twisted the finger into place, unleashing another torrent of agony upon Jawad. Tears welled up, and he would have screamed if he had not been biting into the leather.

When done, Ishak fetched ointment and applied it to Jawad’s hand. He finished by placing a tight bandage around the limb, locking the fingers into place. “Come see me in a few days. You’ll want another smear and a fresh bandage.”

“I owe you a debt, Ishak. I’ll be grateful to you for as long as I live,” Jawad said earnestly.

“That warms my old heart more than a coat of cat’s wool,” the alchemist said, looking bashful. “Keep your praise until we know it did any good.”

“I have faith in your abilities.”

“Now you’re just flattering me.” Something like a cough or a sob forced its way up Jawad’s throat, and only once it left his mouth did he recognise it to be laughter. Ishak smiled and moved to the foot of the bed. “While we’re at it, let’s take care of these too.” He began cleaning the mixture of dust, splinters, blood, and open wounds on Jawad’s feet.

“I should tell you, this was the work of the Black Teeth.”

“Those snake skin suckers.” Ishak shook his head. “I’m not afraid of them if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“You should be. They’ll have followed me here.”

“They’re welcome to try anything. I may be senile, but my mind is sharp as ever.” He tapped himself on the temple of his head. “That reminds me. Are you here to check on my progress?”

“Your progress?”

“You wanted me to make you some – elixirs that in the wrong hands could be used for malicious intent.” Ishak leaned forward to whisper his next words. “I’m talking about poisons.”

“I figured.” Jawad had forgotten all about it. A maelstrom of thoughts whirled in his head as he tried to remember the days before his capture and subsequent torture. “Give me a moment to rest and think. Just a moment.”

The alchemist stood up. “Sure. Let it never be said that Ishak, master of potions and expert of alchemy, doesn’t know when to take a step back. In fact, my knowledge of nature and its mysteries are only surpassed by my knowledge of etiquette, courtesy, and good manners. I remember one time…” He continued talking for a while, oblivious to the fact that Jawad was fast asleep.

~~~~

When Jawad woke, the familiar throbbing of pain was pulsating through his body. But he was resting comfortably and not strapped to a rack. “Water,” he pleaded hoarsely.

“Of course! What a physician I turn out to be,” Ishak grumbled, shaking his head and pouring a large cup for Jawad.

“How long did I sleep?”

“You slept?”

The thief cleared his throat. “What hour is it?”

“It’s afternoon,” Ishak replied, busy at his worktable.

“What day is it?”

“The first.”

That meant he had been imprisoned for the better part of a week. Jawad took a deep breath. His body was, if not healed, in working condition again. His mind was quiet now that the most pressing needs were looked after. It was time to turn attention towards his plans again.

The purple dye was beyond his reach. He had bought himself a reprieve from the Black Teeth, but he would not underestimate them again. They were undoubtedly watching his every step, ready to strike once they realised he would not deliver as promised. He could not expect even al-Badawi’s palace to be a sanctuary from their revenge. Not that Jawad imagined the outcome would be different if he actually could bring them the information they sought; he was only safe while they thought he was useful, and that would only last two more days.

His recent setback meant that all his plans for al-Badawi might be spoiled as well. With that being the case, and the Black Teeth breathing down his neck, Jawad saw no choice but to drive the spurs into his schemes. “Ishak,” he said, “I need to continue your work. Proceed with everything that you were doing for me.”

“My utmost pleasure.” The alchemist gave a bow. “Only one problem. I’ve refined the recipes as you wanted to the point that the gods themselves cry tears witnessing the artistry.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I’ve spent all the materials doing so. Chicken scales don’t grow on rocks, as you well know.”

“Of course.” Jawad was in fact unaware of this.

“It’ll cost me all my coin and more to replenish my stocks and continue the work.”

“Just finish it. I’ll reimburse you as soon as I can,” the thief promised.

Ishak sent him a look as he sat on the bed in a dirty, worn tunic, not even owning a pair of sandals. “I have the utmost confidence you will.” He turned to rummage through a few belongings scattered on the floor, digging out some old footwear and throwing them to his patient. “I don’t want you ruining all my good work,” he added, gesturing to Jawad’s bandaged feet.

“Much obliged.” He began tying the sandals to his feet.

“Funny.”

“What is?”

“The city’s on fire.”

Jawad jerked his head up to see Ishak staring out the window. “Close to us?”

The old man shook his head. “North of here, beyond the docks. The merchant district. Wind is blowing away from us,” he added, glancing at laundry that hang outside drying.

Jawad relaxed. “That’s something, at least. I don’t think I could handle any more calamities.”

“Not everything that happens in this city is about you, boy,” Ishak reproached him.

Jawad finished tying the sandals, and only then did a slow chain of thought unroll in his mind. He had been held captive for days, missing his meeting with Dār al-Gund. They had planned contingencies if he failed to stop al-Badawi from selling his precious goods. When Jawad had not made contact, they would have set those plans into motion. Specifically, they would have set the warehouses on fire. Al-Badawi’s storages and offices were burning. It was the first day of the week. The one day that every week without fail, Zaida – he leapt to his feet and ran out the building.

~~~~

Jawad ignored the torment he was putting his damaged feet through, running through the streets. He was constantly being pushed back or having to evade the stream of people rushing away from the fires, hindering his progress. Never before had the distance between southern Alcázar and the merchant district seemed so great to him.

His mind was aflame as well. Days of torture and humiliation, the unravelling of all his carefully laid plans, and everything else he had suffered over the last few months had come close to breaking him, but he had kept himself together, he had survived, he had come back, only to be met with this. He knew now that the gods cared nothing for men. He was fate’s plaything, and this was the final cruelty, the final jest, after which he would be discarded. All that he had done, all that he had gone through, all of it had arranged the current situation, making a mockery of his torments. He would be too late to stop it; at best, he would arrive to see the result. And he would know it was by his own doing.

What other explanation than the scornful laughter of the gods could there be? Jawad clung to this belief as he ran past the docks. Several ships had unmoored to put water between themselves and any flammable buildings. The sailors were watching the blazing inferno calmly, having nothing at risk anymore.

Yes, the gods were to blame. They had set this up, set him up. They had arranged so that he would unwittingly be the culprit; that the only person to treat him with courtesy, with respect, to make him feel like he was a man and not a mongrel of the street, to make him feel – that she would perish under such horrible circumstances. This thought repeated in Jawad’s mind, over and over, doing its best to drown out the only other possible answer. If he could not blame fate or some other higher power, Jawad could only blame himself.

In his haste, he tripped over a crate. “Fuck! Fuck you all!” he screamed at the heavens, lying flat on his stomach. “Whores, the lot of you!” He gasped for breath, stumbling to get up. As he continued his frenzied run, the heavens responded by opening up and pouring torrents of water down. Although too early for the season, the first of the winter rains had come to Alcázar.

Within moments, he was soaked and cold to the bone. He could smell the smoke now. He already tried to keep his breathing to a minimum, as each gasp of air made his broken ribs scream in pain. With the smoke filling his throat and making his eyes tear, Jawad could not imagine any way he could be more pitiful.

He had to stop running. His feet, chest, and general physical state did not allow any further exertion. Still, he continued his dogged advance. The streets were mostly empty now, but ahead he heard shouts from those attempting to fight the fire. There was little they could do to extinguish it. Their efforts were concentrated around creating an empty belt of land that would keep the flames at bay and prevent them from consuming more of the city.

Turning a corner, a wall of heat struck Jawad. Already, the fires were receding thanks to the heavy rainfall; large, smouldering warehouses lay resembling burned-out husks, sending pillars of smoke into the air like prayers to the heavens.

Jawad’s gaze swept over the gathering of people. Most of them were frantically working to contain the fire; he recognised some of them as the clerks and workers in al-Badawi’s employ.

His next physical reaction was such that the wind was knocked out of him. Standing near them, directing their efforts, coloured by the smoke but otherwise unharmed, she was a flower in a land of desolation.

He took a few uncertain paces forward, trying to call her name. No sound issued from his lips; only tears appeared. He was almost close enough to touch her when she noticed him. Upon seeing his tormented figure, she recoiled until she recognised his features through everything that lay upon him. Countless questions could be seen upon her face.

He closed the distance between them; with his dirty, soaked tunic, his damaged ribs, and shattered hand, Jawad embraced her tightly, and Zaida returned the gesture.

END OF HARVEST

Men may spend their lives in search of hard-won treasure

Sun will shine on rich and poor in equal measure

Fools repeat wise words avoiding honest toil’s sweat

Never knowing hollow wisdom shall incur debt

Gentle life, sweet days that seem to be without threat

Soon grows bitter, cold and harsh as harvest stars set

Often days that seem to bring the start of leisure

May instead be heralding the end of pleasure

Third strophe in the poem Time and Season by the renowned poet, al-Tayir

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About the author

Quill

Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; all tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.

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